Kathryn Bolkovac: The Real ‘Whistleblower’ on Human Trafficking in Bosnia
In The Whistleblower which opens this weekend, Rachel Weisz portrays a U.N. peacekeeper who exposes sex trafficking involving peacekeepers in Bosnia. Jessica Bennett talks with Kathryn Bolkovac, the woman who inspired the film.
They were peacekeepers: sent to Bosnia in the aftermath of the Balkans war, tasked with overseeing the local police force and restoring calm. In blue United Nations uniforms, they arrived from countries all over the world, roaming the hills near Sarajevo and Ilidza, trying to maintain order in a nation battered by civil conflict.
But as we learn in the first minutes of The Whistleblower, which opens in select theaters this weekend and stars Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, many of these men and women were ill-trained and unsupervised.
They landed in a foreign land with no clear mandate, and at times, little understanding of what they were there to accomplish. “No one knew what authority they had,” says Kathryn Bolkovac, the Nebraska-cop-turned-U.N.-peacekeeper who inspired the film. “It was ridiculous.”
Ultimately, when Bolkovac discovers that the men with “IPTF”—short for INTERNATIONAL POLICE TASK FORCE—stitched across their shoulders are involved in the brutal trafficking of underage girls, the response by a high agency commander in the film is: “Those girls are whores of war. It happens.”
Yes, it’s drama—but the real-life response by the U.N. at the time, and the contractor charged with recruiting for the agency, was not dissimilar. Which is why there’s been speculation that the directorial debut of filmmaker Larysa Kondracki is the summer thriller that the diplomatic community is hoping you won’t see.
An internal U.N. memo sent among senior advisers last month (and leaked to the filmmakers) highlights the organization’s early strategy discussions on how to handle the film’s release—namely, whether to embrace it, by informing the public on “improvements in U.N. policy,” or downplay it altogether. The U.N. has not commented directly on the film, but tells The Daily Beast, quoting from a July 26 press briefing, that the organization does “welcome all efforts to draw attention to such human rights violations.”
A statement put out by DynCorp, the contractors who hired Bolkovac in 1999—and ultimately fired her—meanwhile, touts the company’s “zero tolerance policy on human trafficking,” and notes that Bolkovac’s allegations that the agency was involved in trafficking were “aggressively and responsibly addressed” at the time. The company declined to elaborate further.
“Is this an effort to shame publicly? Yes,” says Kondracki, the director. “There is no excuse for any international government, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department or any private contractor, to engage in, encourage or cover up such activity. Let’s face it—that’s what happened.”
The Whistleblower is centered on Bolkovac (Weisz), a mother of three who, in 1999, takes an $85,000 contract with DynCorp (Democra Services in the film), a U.S.-paid contractor that was recruiting peacekeepers for the U.N. Bolkovac would spend 22 months in Bosnia, heading the U.N.’s gender affairs unit there, where she began to uncover a vast underground sex trade.
The film focuses on two Ukranian teens, Raya and Luba, who are lured into slavory by promises of a hotel job. Bolkovac’s character soon discovers dozens more women who are raped and brutalized, forced to work off their “debt” in grimy sex clubs where they are chained and sold. Local police, U.N. staff and Bolkovac’s U.S. colleagues are among the profiteers and patrons.
But Bolkovac soon learns she has little recourse, and that nobody—least of all the world’s great humanitarian organization—is willing to take on a scandal. When she pushes for a formal investigation into the trafficking, she is reassigned from her post. When she questions her colleagues’ diplomatic immunity—peacekeepers cannot be prosecuted for crimes committed overseas—she is demoted. Fed up, she ultimately sends an email detailing the hypocrisy up the chain of command—to more than 50 people—and is fired. DynCorp—which remains one of the State Department’s main contractors overseas—claims she has committed payroll fraud.
In the film, Weisz breaks into the U.N. to retrieve her documents. With the help of one particular ally, she turns them over to the press; the film stops there.
But for Bolkovac, the aftermath involved a prolonged lawsuit against DynCorp (which she ultimately won), but little closure. She did take her story to the press, and she has written a book (also called The Whistleblower) about her experience. Yet she still doesn’t know who was behind her termination—or to what extent the crimes were covered up.
“The anger comes and goes,” says the 51-year-old. “Sure, I won my lawsuit, but I never got any real answers.”
At least two of the men involved in the trafficking at DynCorp, Bolkovac says, have been promoted to upper management, while she has been forced out of the policing field entirely. Now married and living in The Netherlands (her husband, whom she met in Bosnia, is portrayed in the film by Nokolaj Lie Kaas), Bolkovac works a desk job, as a project manager for an international auctioneering firm. She has tried to obtain international contract work, but it’s a small community: she is infamous.
And despite many interviews, she hasn’t been able to get her foot in at a humanitarian organization, either. “What can I say?” she sighs. “Life goes on. I do the best I can, I work hard, and hope that one day things will change.”